questions….luke 7.18-23

Children are inquisitive.  It’s part of their nature.  They can’t help it. Of all the questions asked, and there are many, the one a parent is likely to hear most often is a question of greatest breadth and, thus, a question most difficult to answer. Why? Simple, yet so profound.  Easy, yet so difficult. And, despite the fact all children vow never to use the phrase “because I said so” when they grow up, soon enough they find themselves in the place of parent and are astonished to hear those four words reverberating from their mouth quite easily and with great frequency.

Why? Because I said so. It’s a phrase filled with great depth and myriad meaning. Because that’s just how it is.  Because that’s how it has to be.  Because that’s how it’s suppose to be.  Because that’s how I have chosen for it to be.  Just because I said so.  That’s why. It’s an answer.  Albeit not a very good one from a child’s perspective, but an answer nonetheless.  Yet it almost always fails miserably in its quest to quench the inquisitiveness.

But why?  The question persists in the hearts of children and the answers given do little to alleviate the tension. It is a question often asked out of confusion, frustration, bewilderment, anger, or doubt.  This is true of children and adults alike, for we never really get away from the why question.  Even those who have a clear sense of purpose, of vision, of direction, of identity; they still ask why.  And maybe it is, in the end, a necessary part of life, the question that keeps us alive by its inquisitiveness, for, despite our best efforts at sophistication, we never really get away from that most simple yet profound question, why?

Why do some have abundance and others lack sufficient means for the day?  Why do people act in ways that devastate their lives and the lives of those around them?  Why does evil and suffering abound if God is good?  Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?  Or, more often, why does God always seem to answer the prayers of others yet when I pray nothing much seems to happen?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad things happen to people?  Why do bad things happen period?

If anyone could have envisioned a life without needing to ask the question “why?” it was John. Luke tells us that his birth followed the miraculous visit of an angel of the LORD to his father who was so struck by the occasion that he could neither hear nor speak until the time his baby was born.  This was due in part to his questioning of the message, but one has to wonder if deafness and muteness would be the outcome of such an encounter for a time anyway.

Do not fear, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you will give him the name John…It is he who will go as a forerunner before [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Lk 1.13, 17).

This was the message given to old, feeble Zacharias.  Well-past the age for having children—both mentally and physically.  And he wonders why?  Why now?  How will it happen now?  I am too old, my wife, well, she’s too old too…but don’t tell her I said that.  Why?  How? Then silence and solitude with only his thoughts for nine long months waiting for the birth of John, his son.

We can only assume that Zacharias was able to tell about this encounter to his wife somehow.  Maybe writing in the sand or playing a game of charades perhaps.  Somehow not only his wife Elizabeth comes to understand the destiny of her son, but, more miraculous, their son knows while still in the womb.  Soon Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin, arrives—pregnant as well.  She and her husband had their own angelic visits, and while their speech and hearing remained in tact, they too were forever changed.  For the birth of these two boys brought the rise and fall of many, and ultimately the redemption of the world.

But it seems that John understood his destiny and purpose before he was born.  It takes most of us a quarter century or so before we feel ready to fulfill whatever purpose God has for us, what we desire to do. Yet John reveals that most of us are behind the curve, so to speak.  Or, maybe it was just that John was the curve breaker in the class.

Blessed are you among women, Elizabeth proclaims to Mary, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! […] For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy (Lk 2.41-44).

The baby leaped in my womb for joy.  John, the curve breaker, knew why he was born.  To proclaim to all peoples—even his mother—behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. If anyone had reason not to ask questions it was John.  Yet even he has his own set of questions in the end.  So maybe asking questions is part of what it means to be human after all.  Maybe it’s what keeps us alive; and it is through, not in spite of, the questions that new life emerges.  For sooner than later life happens, and with it the questions.   John finds himself somewhere he never wanted to be—maybe never dreamed he would be.  Though, if he never dreamed it he should have, that or acted with a little more diplomacy in his proclamations.

Leaping for joy at the coming of the Messiah.  Boldly proclaiming Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near.  Faith-filled words, these; awakening praise and adoration of the Lamb.  Christ must become greater, John must become less.  Why?  Because I said so.

Herod, it’s wrong for you to be married to your brother’s wife.  It’s not right.  It’s not proper.  Repent, for the Kingdom of God has drawn near.  Fighting-words, these; leading to a dark, damp prison cell with little light and little hope.  Herod must become greater, John must become less.  Why?  Because I said so.

And there he sits.  Alone.  In the darkness and dreariness and dimness of Herod’s prison, pondering his mission, his purpose, his future.  Wondering why.  And “because I said so” seems more a rebuke and evasion than an answer. Joy, dancing in the womb.  Preparing the way.  Repent for the Kingdom has come near.  Behold the Lamb of God.

Then prison.

What?  Why?  How could this happen?

This wasn’t how the script was supposed to play out—it never is.  The forerunner of the Messiah sits in prison, and the Messiah doesn’t seem to care.  The one so faithful in his mission, so sure of his purpose and future, now wonders and waits.  And both the wondering and the waiting combine to an ache that is nearly overwhelming.  Why am I in prison?  Why doesn’t Jesus seem to care?  Why isn’t he coming to get me out of prison?  Why?

John’s disciples have been making visits.  They have come to see him often, bearing food and drink and news of the various happenings in Palestine.  But mostly they tell him about Jesus.  And, in the end, that’s the news John wants to hear anyway.  Politely waiting through the various news pieces from make-shift reporters until the segment that he is watching the news to see anyway.

This week he went to Nazareth, they say, and he stood up in the synagogue and spoke.  And oh, his words were wonderful, hopeful, amazing, breath taking. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and… (Lk 4.18-21).

Wait, what did you just say?  Repeat that.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives. Oh, and he said something else as he was taking a seat.  Today, this has been fulfilled in your hearing. And hope stirs in John’s heart.  Release to the captives—today, this day?  Freedom for people like me?

Yet hours turn to days and days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months.  John is still in prison, and his disciples are still reporting to him about all that Jesus has said and done this week, and the promise of release to the captives increasingly becomes a cruel taunt, a mocking word of hope in hopeless times. So John waits for the next visit to give his disciples a mission—one arising from a plaintive longing, from an inborn inquisitiveness that makes him human.

Why am I still in prison if Jesus is the Messiah I proclaimed him to be? Are you the expected one or do we wait for another?

John sends his question via messenger, the only way he can, to the one who will soon face his own time of questioning filled only by the haunting silence and the overwhelming presence of absence. The one who has known from the womb that Jesus is the messiah now sits in prison and wonders why, wonders if he got it right, wonders what this Kingdom and its King is all about.

John’s disciples go to Jesus, likely having much the same the question themselves and relieved that they have permission to ask.  Are you the expected one, are you the Messiah, are you who John told us you were?  Translated: why are you helping everyone else and leaving our friend, our mentor, our teacher in prison?

God, why is this happening?  God, why do bad things happen to me and good things happen to others?  God, why don’t you answer?  God, where are you in all of this? Are you the expected one or do we wait for another?

At that time Jesus cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and he gave sight to many who were blind.  And he answered John’s disciples, saying to them, go and report to John what you have seen and heard…and they went…Blessed is he who does not fall away on account of Me. (Lk 7.21-22).

Why?  Because I said so. And maybe in that exchange—replayed across the world by children and parents moments innumerable—there is a parable about the Kingdom.

Maybe there is both answer and no answer at all.  Maybe there is a gap faith must fill between call and response, question and answer, confusion and explanation, brokenness and redemption.  Maybe Jesus’ parting words are a call to faith and trust where none seem possible, a call to hope beyond the proper bounds of hope.  And maybe, in the end, this is the only answer possible because there are reasons beyond the comprehension of the questioner, purposes to bring goodness and wholeness and life which cannot be understood at the time.  Maybe there is only this: to trust and obey, to hope and pray, to walk by faith, even when, especially when, all hell breaks loose and no answers, at least not good ones, are forthcoming.

And maybe in the here and now this is how the Kingdom is made manifest.  Not always through drastic deliverance, not always through visible signs and wonders, not always through airtight answers to the myriad questions life brings.  Rather, the Kingdom manifests itself with a message of hope, however faint, that the present does not speak the final word.  That in weakness, strength is found.  That even those in prison for the sake of righteousness find hope deeper than despair, joy fuller than grief, and life abundantly beyond all we could ask or imagine even in the midst of trouble and turmoil.  Not because an easy answer is given, not even because a good answer is given; but simply because the one who speaks in reply is the lamb of God who takes away the sin and suffering and evil and pain of the world.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized on account of me.  Blessed is the one whose conceptions of what is fitting and proper and right do not blind them to the reality of God and his Christ.  Blessed is the one who can trust and hope and follow even when the answer seems more like an evasion.  Blessed is the one who can trust when there are no explanations to give.

The blind receive sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The poor have the gospel preached to them.  The dead are raised.  The captives are set free.  The oppressed are relieved of their burden.  The King and the Kingdom have indeed come near. The year of the LORD, the year of jubilee has indeed come.

And in the darkness John remains, and we with him, awaiting his disciples’ return.  Are you the expected one or do we look for another? Blessed is the one who is not scandalized on account of me. Why?  Because I said so.  And, because of the one who speaks, it is hope enough.

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